The underwear had sold out, and the zippers and colorful ribbons were going fast. The giant sombreros and “sassy pirate” wig were still up for grabs. So were the plastic party lights shaped like tiny slices of pepperoni pizza.
This week, the new year marked the beginning of an end of sorts for Bruce Variety, a 59-year-old Bethesda fixture where customers found everything from the ultra-practical to the hard-to-buy-anywhere-else quirky. Where else would the one-stop shopper find fake chest hair next to the school supplies?
Owner Richard Dimock said Wednesday that he could no longer afford the $22,000 monthly rent where Bruce Variety has been located since 1953 — in the Bradley Shopping Center at Bradley Boulevard and Arlington Road. Dimock said he’s selling off his inventory but thinks there’s “a good chance” the store can move elsewhere in the Bethesda area, although it doesn’t have a spot now.
“It’s a loss of an absolute treasure,” Mary Fernandez, 75, of the District said as she surveyed the lampshades Wednesday morning. She added that her e-mail group list was “just filled up with people saying, ‘Bruce Variety? Oh, my gosh! What can we do to keep it?’ ”
As word spread, customers came to snap up a bargain (the whole store is now half off) and wander the shelves looking for the odd item they didn’t know they needed but suddenly had to have.
“Do you have teakettles?” one woman asked Dimock’s wife and store co-owner, Linda Ridenour. Meanwhile, Carol Mufarrij of Bethesda admired the plastic contraption that would pull runaway elastic through a waistband. A few minutes earlier, down another aisle, Sharon Isralow, upon eyeing a tool on the wall, had exclaimed, “Oh, a five-in-one! This is the absolute best thing in the world.”
Just a few blocks away from Bethesda Row’s day spas and tony boutiques, Bruce Variety is nothing fancy, just rows of crowded shelves. It doesn’t have a finished ceiling, and the exposed pipes above give it the feel of a small warehouse. But many customers, mostly from Northwest Washington and lower Montgomery County, said that didn’t matter.
Jenna Jolovitz, who is in her 40s, stopped by Wednesday, as she does during every visit from Los Angeles to see her parents.
“This place is my childhood,” said Jolovitz, choking up. “I love this place. I came here after my weekly piano lessons. I learned to sew here. . . . This place is ‘coming home’ for me.”
Jolovitz, a comedy writer and improv teacher, said the store reminds her of the “old Bethesda” where she grew up, a sleepy suburb with a couple of restaurants and mom and pop stores.
“If you need it, it’s here,” Jolovitz said, holding a new pair of zebra-striped and polka-dotted tights for her 7-year-old daughter. “Like Contact paper — where else are you going to get Contact paper?”
It was a refrain heard throughout the store.
“I don’t know where I’m going to buy buttons,” said Ruthann Bates, 65, of Chevy Chase.
“Where am I going to get iron-on letters?” wondered Helen Labadie, 19.
Amir Khaghani, a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School, started an online petition Monday asking the landlords to renegotiate with Bruce Variety. As of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, it had more than 1,700 signatures.
A woman who answered the phone at a number for the Bradley Shopping Center ownership declined to comment on Bruce Variety’s lease and asked that her name not be published.
Dimock, who bought the business in 1985, said it took a hit with the recession and couldn’t recover after a Home Depot opened near Montgomery Mall a couple of years ago. The Home Depot, he said, siphoned off business — and potential Bruce Variety customers — from the Strosniders Hardware store next door.
Ridenour said that when she and Dimock met with the landlord this summer to discuss renewing their 10-year lease, there “was no movement” in the rent. Based on what she and her husband have learned about the area’s commercial real estate market, she said, the $22,000 they’re paying monthly is above the going rate.
“You have to sell an awful lot of ribbon at 13 cents a yard to pay that,” Ridenour said.